Gain or gamble: Are there too many casinos in central New York?
When Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona opened in 1993, it was the only land-based casino in the entire state of New York.
By this time next year, there will be a total of seven casinos and casino-like gaming facilities along an 100-mile stretch of the thruway, between the Greater Rochester area and Utica — with several others farther south, east and west.
The increasing number of these facilities is what some analysts blame for the financial shortcomings of the three new upstate Vegas-style casinos that opened this year. Del Lago in Seneca County, Rivers in Schenectady, and Tioga Downs in the Southern Tier are all estimated to produce far less in slot machine and table game revenue in their first year than they projected when they applied for licenses in 2014.
According to a spokesman for the New York State Gaming Commission, the state will wait to see third-year revenue results, saying those will provide a better metric for analysis, since the casinos will be more established in the region and marketplace.
But that’s not a convincing argument for Gary Greenberg, minority owner of Vernon Downs, the racino, which is a racetrack with video lottery terminals in Oneida County.
“These new casinos, you know the first year, they’re new, so in the industry when you open, new people run to it. It’s like anything else. They’re doing business, but they’re not doing what they stated they would do,” Greenberg said.
He believes the new casinos’ revenue shortage is due to an increasingly over-saturated market of gaming facilities in upstate New York, and particularly central New York, creating too much competition too close by.
That’s something Vernon Downs is familiar with. The facility came close to closing in the spring after revealing that competition from other casinos caused a monthly revenue loss of $150,000 between November 2016 and April 2017. The state legislature stepped in and passed a tax relief package to keep the racino open, saving 300 jobs.
“It helped at least keep it open a few years, but in the long term, it’s not enough,” Greenberg said. “The state needs to do more. They handcuffed Vernon Downs. Can’t have table games? It’s unfair. You’re allowing the Oneida Indians to open all these different casinos all surrounding them. I don’t see [Vernon Downs] being open five or 10 years down the road. There’s just no way.”
The casino portion of Vernon Downs has seen a pretty steady decline in revenue since the Oneida Nation opened the Yellow Brick Road Casino in Chittenango in June 2015. According to State Gaming Commission data, Vernon Downs made around $3.9 million in revenue in May 2015. Last month, it totaled only about $2.2 million — the lowest monthly earning since December 2007.
“I think the only way that Vernon Downs will ever survive — if it does ever and it doesn’t look like it ever will — is if they worked in elegant table games and could compete on an equal basis with the other full casinos in the area,” Greenberg said.
But with Turning Stone already nearby and Yellow Brick Road now just 20 miles away, Vernon Downs will face undoubtedly even more competition from another new casino in central New York next year. The Oneida Nation will open Point Place Casino in Bridgeport, on the border of Madison and Onondaga counties, sometime this spring.
While that’s happening, the Oneida Nation is also in talks with Oneida County about building another casino in the Mohawk Valley — this one in downtown Utica.
“I think there’s enough. Why do you need another casino in Utica? In downtown Utica? No, I don’t think you need one there. Makes no sense to me to keep opening up casinos,” Greenberg said.
But it does make sense to Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente Jr., who said the first-year shortcomings of del Lago, Rivers, and Tioga Downs can’t completely be attributed to competition.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of saturation. I think it’s a matter of experience and other amenities,” Picente said.
The proposed Utica project would include a casino, beer museum, interactive playground, and ice skating rink. Those add-ons make it an ace up Utica’s sleeve, according to Picente.
“It has unique advantages as far as placement. It has unique advantages in terms of amenities that surround it. And it has a built-in customer base because of other activities nearby that take place on a regular basis,” he said.
The casino would be part of a planned arts, entertainment, and sports district of the city. According to Picente, the key word there is “part,” saying the casino isn’t intended to be a “catchall.”
“It’s not meant to be the anchor and the piece that attracts people. That’s why there are other pieces,” Picente said. “It’s part of an arts/entertainment/sports district. If I was talking to you and saying ‘look we’re just going to build a casino here and we’re going to let everything take its place,’ then people would have a valid argument that the casino is not going to solve or garner the amount of traffic and tourism and dollars.”
Picente also noted that Vernon Downs and Turning Stone are obviously both in his jurisdiction, and he isn’t interested in taking any action if he thought it would hurt them.
“We’re not looking to take people away from our entities. We’re looking to expand that. And if we have a satellite in Utica that’s not going to compete with restaurants and shows — which they’re not — that’s the difference,” Picente said.
As far as the Oneida Nation goes, the organization seems contempt with its expansion and didn’t express any concern about competition from state commercial casinos.
“The Oneida Nation would not be making the investment if it didn’t think it could be successful,” a spokesman said in an email.
Along with Point Place Casino, the last of the four state-authorized casinos — Resorts World Catskills — is set to open in the Hudson Valley sometime in 2018. And several years from now, New York is scheduled to authorize another three non-Indian commercial casinos somewhere in the state.